Mutts Excerpt

Grandma was drunk. Again.

And not some slightly tipsy, old lady, isn’t-she-cute, drunk. She was falling on her ass, mean, incoherent, tempting-me-to-leave-her-out-in-the-snow-to-get-run-over-by-a-reindeer, drunk.

Except Chicago was sadly lacking in reindeer. Got plenty of snow, though. Sighing, I made my way to Gran to help her get inside before she passed out and froze to death. Awful as she was, she was still the only family I had. My mom had died almost ten years ago when I had just turned eight, and I’d never met my dad. There was no other family as far as I knew. Just me and a mean, drunk granny.

And the occasional social worker.

That thought was enough to make me try to help the old woman sober up. I didn’t want to go into temporary care days before my eighteenth birthday.

I knelt next to where she sat and got hit with a waft of whiskey, oranges, and cigarettes. “Grandma, let me help you up.”

She slapped away my outstretched hand. “Don’t need no damn help.” She stood and stumbled up the few steps to the door, then nearly fell back.

I grabbed hold of her from behind, my arms barely fitting around her waist, and tried not to fall with her. She was twice my size.

“Here, I’ve got you,” I said. “You don’t want to slip on the ice.”

She grumbled but finally went up the stairs. Once inside our apartment, she dropped to the floor, crawling on her hands and knees. In her black puffy coat and fuzzy hat, she looked so much like an angry bear I almost laughed.

“C’mon, Gran, let’s sit on the couch and look at the pretty lights,” I said as if I were excited.

Her head tilted, and one eye blinked up at me through a wild tangle of hair.

Nodding, I gave what I hoped was an encouraging smile, and pointed toward the raggedy Christmas tree we had decorated the day before. Charlie Brown’s little tree had nothing on this baby. It was an artificial pine I’d rescued from a dumpster a few years ago, making it our first tree. I don’t know why I kept dragging it out every year—the only ornaments were ones I’d made from paper and aluminum foil, and I’d only been able to buy one strand of lights—but somehow, despite the fact Santa never visited our house, it felt good to see it.

Strangely enough, it had the same effect on the old woman. She’d even sobered up enough this year to help me cut out paper snowflakes to hang on it. We’d put the tree in the living room next to the futon that served as both our sofa and my bed. I pointed to it again. “See the pretty lights? And the pretty snowflakes you made?”

Blink, blink.

“Let me help you to the sofa and we can sit together, okay? Do you want me to rub your feet?”

Her head dropped down, mumbling something I couldn’t understand. I reached out again, and this time she didn’t shake me off.

Gran wasn’t very tall, but she was plenty wide, so it was a stretch to put my arms around her. I tried to pull her up and only managed to topple us both. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but when I saw that she had passed out, I did both.

Sitting on the floor next to her, I watched the colored lights blur through my tears until my back ached and my eyes burned so badly, I had to go to bed. I changed out of my work clothes, nose wrinkling at the embedded smell of roasted meat and frying oil but was too tired to shower before throwing on my pajamas.

Grabbing a pillow and blankets, I tried to get Gran comfortable on the floor since there was no way I could carry her to bed at that point. After that familial duty, I climbed into the futon and pulled another blanket over my head. I was too tired to even say my nightly prayer—the one I’d prayed for ten years, the one that had never been answered—the one where I begged that whoever my father was, he’d come rescue me.

“Happy flippin’ holidays,” I mumbled.

A skittering noise startled me just as I was dozing off. I opened my eyes under the covers then closed them again when I didn’t hear anything else. Perhaps a mouse had run across the floor, but I was too tired to care. Pulling the blankets tighter around my head, I gave in to sleep, never imagining my life could change forever.

* * * * *

It was the odor that woke me—something animal-like, overpowering the usual alcohol and B.O. smell of my grandmother. Gagging, I sat up to look at Gran.

And screamed.

“Shh.” The stranger standing over her body put a finger up to his lips.

I drew another breath and he was on me so fast I didn’t see it coming.

His warm hand clamped over my mouth, and I caught the citrus-like scent of his cologne, along with another smell, as if he’d recently been petting a dog or something. It made the hairs raise on the back of my neck.

“Be quiet, Marti,” he whispered. “Trust me, you don’t want to wake the neighbors.”

As my entire body shook, my bladder started to release.

He must have felt it, because he jumped, taking me with him, and ran toward the bathroom.

“Don’t scream. Your father sent me,” he said as he shoved me into the bathroom and shut the door.

My father?

My mouth hung open as two things occurred to me at once: whoever the guy was, he was gorgeous… and pee was dripping down my leg.

With trembling hands, I locked the door behind me and immediately felt guilty because my grandmother was still out there on the floor. Scattered thoughts whirled as I looked around the room for some type of weapon, not knowing whether to clean myself off first or try to fight my way past him.

Should I scream again?

It was doubtful anyone would hear, or even care if they did hear. The low-rent housing complex we lived in was filled with people yelling all hours of the day and night.

There would be no going through the window, either. We were three floors up, and the window was one of those old, louvered glass types. It opened out to the brick wall of the next building, a foot away. A small lighter on the back of the toilet caught my eye. Gran must have left it there, but what could I do with it?

A can of hairspray snagged my attention. Yes!

Combined with the lighter, it could be a makeshift blowtorch. A stretch, maybe, but it was the best I had at the moment. I quickly slipped out of my wet pants and wiped down before putting on the bathrobe that hung on the back of the door.  I opened the linen closet and sifted through the dirty clothes in the small basket inside. But I’d washed clothes the day before, and all I could find of mine was an old, ripped, pair of granny-panties that I wore as a last-resort on laundry day. I snatched them out and put them on. It was gross, but my pajama pants were soaked, and no way was I going back out there bare-assed.

After tugging the shirt down around my hips as best I could, I tied the robe around me before slipping the hairspray and lighter into the pocket. For good measure, I flushed the toilet then turned on the sink tap to account for the time I was spending.

Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I grimaced at the day-old, smeared makeup. Disbelieving of my own vanity, I rinsed my face and ran a shaky hand over my hair. I mean, the guy was gorgeous … and what had he said … my father sent him? Plus, he’d called me Marti. Only Gran and my mom had ever called me that nickname for my given name, Maritza.

It was still quiet out there as I splashed my hands around the sink and even brushed my teeth, being sure to make lots of innocent-sounding noises as I considered the situation.

The guy was a stranger. It was certain I’d never seen him before, because I would have remembered. He was tall, handsome, mixed race of some sort—a bit Asian looking—with shoulder-length dark hair and weirdly silver-gray eyes, but still clearly a mutt, like me. My own mixed heritage showed in my tan skin and too curly hair. Afro-Cuban on my mom’s side, Mexican American Caucasian on my dad’s.

The sexy but scary stranger outside the door spoke, making me jump. “Marti, please come out. We have to hurry,” he whispered. He made it sound urgent.

Hurry to what? My doom?

But he had said ‘please’ ….

So, a polite psycho? I shook my head to clear it and shoved my hand into the pocket containing the hairspray, gripping the can while I palmed the lighter in the hand I used to open the door. I flipped the lock and warily peeked out.

He backed up to let me exit then leaned in and sniffed as I came out.

Face burning, I jerked away, wondering if I still smelled like urine. I only made it a step or two before he shoved me against the wall and tore both the lighter and hairspray away in a move so fast, I couldn’t track it. The rattle of my lone weapons rolling down the hall signaled my defeat.

His hand covered my mouth as he bent his face toward mine. I could have sworn I saw a hint of admiration in his silver eyes.

“I told you, I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. “If I move my hand, do you promise to listen?”

I nodded as best I could. He moved back and I took a stuttering breath. “Who are you?”

He reached for my arm. “It’s a long story, and we don’t have time. Come with me and I’ll tell you on the way.”

“On the way where?” My voice shook. I had once read that chances of survival were almost nil if an attacker moved you to another location.

Sighing impatiently, he reached for me. “Let’s go before the police show up.”

Taking a deep breath, I backed up and screamed for all I was worth. “Gran!

The sound quickly cut off as he twisted me around and pressed an arm to my throat.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered as silvery spots danced at the edges of my vision. My world turned gray right before it went dark.

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